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In her prime, there was no one—no man or woman, no one wearing Team Red or Blue, no one brandishing centrist or progressive labels—who could rival Dianne Feinstein. She knew what it was like to lose; even before arriving in Washington, she had two failed bids for San Francisco mayor and one for California governor under her belt, not to mention the trauma of finding her friends immediately after a former colleague assassinated them in San Francisco City Hall back in 1978, all of which informed her desire to make the wins she did notch count all the more.
And did she ever win.
Feinstein, the longest-serving woman in the Senate, died Friday at the age of 90 and as the Upper Chamber’s oldest member. No cause was announced, but her health in recent months generated plenty of chatter in Washington and beyond about just how long was long enough for a powerful lawmaker to hang around the Capitol. Hospitalized in February with shingles that later turned out to include encephalitis, she was quickly dogged by rumor and innuendo about her health and legacy, but Feinstein refused to yield and kept her seat. While Washington gnashed its teeth about the choice, it had a practical upside: had President Joe Biden come upon a window to nominate a Supreme Court justice, her vote would have allowed the pick to advance to the full Senate; without Feinstein, the nomination may languish on a tied panel. One of the richest members of the Senate, Feinstein could have retreated to the Bay Area but instead stuck around far longer than her armchair critics would have preferred. They saw headlines while she saw unrealized headaches.
Born Dianne Goldman in 1933, the oldest of three daughters and future senior Senator from California unfurled policy ambitions that were as unapologetic as they were sincere. Essentially, no matter of policy escaped Feinstein’s voracious appetite over the last half century. Gun safety. The HIV/AIDS epidemic. Government transparency. Gender equity. LGBTQ rights. All were set on new courses in part because of the dictates of Feinstein, whose seeming indifference to national political trends helped to insulate her from the leftward shift inside her Democratic Party, for whom she was considered a V.P. candidate in 1984. While she came up through San Francisco politics, it’s impossible to chart her history-making identity without also recalling that the California that sent her to Washington in 1992 was also not far removed from that of former Governor and barely-ex-President Ronald Reagan. She knew her home state wasn’t the caricature of itself, nor did she allow anyone to confuse her with some pushover heiress.
Not long after she won election in 1992’s so-called Year of the Woman, Feinstein and her new colleague, Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho, clashed on the Senate floor over an assault weapon ban. “The gentlelady from California needs to become a little more aware with firearms and their deadly characteristics,” Craig said. Feinstein interrupted: “I am quite familiar with firearms. I became mayor as a product of assassination.”
If the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy was a lion of the Senate, Feinstein was its lioness, but not one who always stayed with the pride. She bucked convention when she found it ill-advised. She joined the Senate in the wake of the incendiary Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, which included the all-male, all-white Senate Judiciary Committee infamously questioning Anita Hill about her sexual harassment allegations. The committee's chairman at the time, Joe Biden, recruited Feinstein to join his panel soon after she arrived in D.C. For years, she warned that Roe was in peril and voted against George W. Bush Supreme Court nominees John Roberts and Samuel Alito on that basis.
From Judiciary and her post on the quietly powerful Senate Intel panel, she remade decades of U.S. policy. She declassified a summary of a report on CIA torture programs over the objections of spooks and Barack Obama. She proved a hawkish defender of U.S. spycraft, a brief loyalist to George W. Bush’s War on Terror, but not without checks.
But it was her decisions on the Judiciary panel during the Trump years that made her an enemy of the left, including her handling of a confidential letter from Christine Blasey Ford alleging Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her while they were in high school. Her conduct during the confirmation hearing of Amy Coney Barrett effectively brought to a close Feinstein’s reign as the top Democrat on Judiciary; her colleagues bristled when Feinstein hugged Sen. Lindsey Graham and praised Judge Barrett’s hearings as “one of the best” hearings she had sat on. She soon stepped aside as the top Democrat on the panel and, shortly after, said she would not be serving as the Senate leader pro temp, taking her out of the line of presidential succession.
Feinstein may have carried herself with a regal demeanor, but her true self was the one who cornered colleagues in basement hallways and hosted dinners for friends across the aisle. She never stopped looking for a deal and seldom came into any meeting without something she was willing to trade away in service of a bigger get. While most other Senators draw sniping or eye-rolling from their House colleagues from the opposite party, it’s tough to find Republicans in the California delegation willing to share a negative word about Feinstein; when House members hit walls, they knew they could call her office to dislodge a logjam.
After nearly three decades in the same seat, Feinstein faced a tough re-nomination fight in 2018 but survived, perhaps hinting that California Democrats were willing to try something new. Feinstein, unbowed and indifferent, put her head down and powered to a fifth term.
All of that, however, was clouded by the discussion of her health during her final years in office. In February of this year, Feinstein announced she would not seek a sixth full term and instead set in motion what stands to be one of the most expensive, contentious, and prophetic primaries in the Democratic Party in quite some time. California Gov. Gavin Newsom is expected to announce an interim replacement; a Black woman, per his promise.
Still, Feinstein remains an iconic figure, and not just for Democrats or women. Her stature is cemented for future generations. Her gains were hard-fought, her wins often in the face of opposition. But Feinstein, who almost walked away from politics in the 1970s, stuck around and did the hard work. In doing so, she remade the expectations for women in politics and remade a half-century of history into one that hewed more to her pragmatic demand for betterment, even if it didn’t always match her party’s ideology.
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